July 27, 2007


For first time visitors, this blog generally covers fairly serious issues during the week. Weekends are reserved for the commentaries of various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This weekend, we are pleased to introduce a new commentator, Stewpot Rooster, Culture Warrior. The views expressed by Mr. Rooster are not necessarily those of the Goat Rope staff. Rather, by providing space for opposing viewpoints, we hope to promote a climate of mutual respect and deep listening and reduce the tragic polarization of our times.


You know what's wrong with this country? You know why we're going to hell in a handbasket? You know who's to blame? You know when it's going to hit the fan? Do you know where it's heading? Do you know how to stop asking questions? I don't...

Anyway, here's the deal...we've let a bunch of pointy headed socialistic liberal Dixie Chick listening media elites take over everything and run this country into the ground.

They've got it all, those slimy #(@#). They've completely taken over everything! Except for the presidency. And the Justice Department. And like all the other federal government agencies. And federal judges. Oh yeah, and the Supreme Court. And like Fox News and a bunch of other big media. And then there's a bunch of corporations. And like all those foundations and religious right groups. And like congress till last November and almost half of it now. But aside from government, the private sector, most of the media, and a lot of other groups out there--they've got it all!


July 26, 2007


Caption: This man is no Cartesian; he didn't think, therefore he swam.

El Cabrero has been musing this week on the nature of scientific knowledge. I haven't got very far, but it is Friday, which should count for something.

There are two influential thinkers of the early modern period who are often credited with getting the ball rolling. One, Francis Bacon, was the subject of yesterday's post. Today's is about his polar opposite, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who gave us both analytical geometry (to which I have never been formally introduced) and, indirectly, the "Matrix" movies.

As I mentioned yesterday, Bacon believed that empirical induction was the way science needed to proceed. For him, experience was the key. He was mistrustful of deductive reasoning and math was way down on his list.

For Descartes, experience and observation were problems, not solutions, since we could easily be deceived by our senses. He recommended a deductive, mathematical approach to the development of the sciences, with experiment and observation way down on his list.

However, most people remember Descartes for his famous thought experiment of systematically doubting everything in order to arrive at some kind of certainty:

I had long before remarked that, in relation to practice, it is sometimes necessary to adopt, as if above doubt, opinions which we discern to be highly uncertain, as has been already said; but as I then desired to give my attention solely to the search after truth, I thought that a procedure exactly the opposite was called for, and that I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable.

This included doubting the senses and even the existence of the external world:

Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us; and because some men err in reasoning, and fall into paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of geometry, I, convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for demonstrations; and finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which we experience when awake may also be experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams.

Then he hit what he thought was bedrock:

But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am (COGITO ERGO SUM), was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the sceptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.

All this is from his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, although he develops these ideas again in a different form in the Meditations on First Philosophy.

It's there that at least one of the inspiration for the Matrix movies came from. In the course of his doubt (from which he extricates himself with a not altogether convincing ontological "proof" of the existence of God), he imagines that

some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me; I will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of dreams, by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity; I will consider myself as without hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that I am possessed of these; I will continue resolutely fixed in this belief, and if indeed by this means it be not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, viz, suspend my judgment ], and guard with settled purpose against giving my assent to what is false, and being imposed upon by this deceiver, whatever be his power and artifice.

In modern times, this is known as the Brains in a Vat problem (as in how do we REALLY know that we ain't?), which is one of the main ideas behind the Matrix movies.

All I know is my legs would be a lot less sore if you could just download martial arts like they do in those movies...

WHEN SQUIDS ATTACK...Jumbo squid around 7 feet long and weighing 100 pounds are becoming more common off the coast of California. And they're mean.

STICKER SHOCK. For the latest on the costs of the Iraq war (what we've paid for so far anyway), click here.



It's interesting that two thinkers widely recognized for launching modern scientific thought had opposite ideas on where to proceed.

I'm thinking about Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626). As Steven L. Goldman points out in his Teaching Company lecture series "Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It," the contrast could hardly be sharper.

For Bacon, the mind was the problem. We are all to eager to concoct theories and explanations of reality at the drop of a hat. He wrote some interesting essays on "the idols of the mind." These included

*the idols of the tribe, or common human fallacies;

*the idols of the cave, or our own private hobby-horses;

*the idols of the marketplace, or false conceptions derived from popular phrases and ideas (memes?); and

*the idols of the theatre, or prejudices derived from older philosopical systems and received wisdom.

He advocated instead a disciplined approach based on observation, experience and induction, a slow collection of facts that would lead to sure knowledge.

It sounded good at the time, and was probably a needed antidote to stale scholasticism, but science doesn't seem to work that way now, and didn't at the time, either.

Next time: Descartes and the Matrix.

SPEAKING OF SCIENCE, Pope Benedict XVI is talking sense. He called the creation/evolution clash "an absurdity,"

This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.

He also noted that evolution doesn't answer all questions: “Above all it does not answer the great philosophical question, ‘Where does everything come from?’”

And he once again drew attention to global climate change:

We all see that today man can destroy the foundation of his existence, his Earth... We cannot simply do what we want with this Earth of ours, with what has been entrusted to us.

TO YOUR HEALTH...AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE. These days stating the obvious is pretty important. Here's an item about what's missing in discussions of health:

The public generally believes that poor lifestyle choices, faulty genes and infectious agents are the major factors that give rise to illness. Here's the rest of the story.

Research now tells us that lower socio-economic status may be more harmful to health than risky personal habits...

The rest is worth a look.


July 24, 2007


Caption: Seamus McGoogle contemplates the square root of -1.

El Cabrero has been brooding this week about the nature of science and knowledge. Must be the weather.

One aspect of human knowledge that I find fascinating is math. I like thinking about math--much more than actually doing it, anyway.

For several years I taught GED classes in Head Start centers in southern WV. Ordinarily, one might think people do a better job of teaching things they're better at (pardon the ending of a phrase with a preposition), but that wasn't the case with me.

I've done a lot of writing over the years, a good bit of it for publication, but I was a total flop at trying to teach it. It always seemed like there were an infinite number of ways to write just about anything.

Math was different. I was horrible at it but at least there were rules.

Sometimes, just to mess with (my own and) the students' minds, I'd ask them why math seemed to work--was it just the way our minds were wired or was it something "out there"? Was it discovered or made up?

As a pragmatist, I'm not sure it matters, but the question is an interesting and old one. For the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (of eponymous theorem fame), math was the key to the secrets of the universe. He was a pioneer in geometry who claimed to be able to hear the music of the heavenly spheres. He also discovered the mathematical relationship between notes on a musical scale.

Plato was an admirer both of Pythagoras and math. He believed our mathematical ideas were an innate knowledge of the eternal forms. The following words were said to have been written above the doors to his Academy: "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter."

That would be one more club I'd never be able to join.

A DAY LATE AND... This really should have been in yesterday's post, but July 24 was the day when the federal minimum wage went up for the first time in over 10 years. That was a good fight. The next one will be to make sure we don't wait 10 more years before it happens again. Here's a good op-ed on the subject by Holly Sklar.

IS THAT A PYTHON IN YOUR EVERGLADE OR ARE YOU JUST HAPPY... From the NY Times, it looks like released Burmese pythons are having a good time in Florida these days.

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT. The title of this op-ed says it all: If This Is Such a Rich Country, Why Are We Getting Squeezed?. It's a good analysis of growing inequality and what we can do about it.



Caption: Goats study the science of irritating humans. Actually, they've perfected it.

Let's start with an unsolicited product endorsement. El Cabrero is a big fan of The Teaching Company and Recorded Books' Modern Scholar series, both of which provide audio courses on all kinds of topics by recognized scholars.

Many public libraries carry these items. With them, you can "read" and learn while, driving, jogging, mowing the lawn, chasing the goats, etc.

One that I'm enjoying at the moment is Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How they Know it by Steven L. Goodman.

Goldman points out early on that just as the natural sciences reached their highest level of prestige in the mid-20th century, they came under attack from a number of different directions. Here are some:

*In the wake of the Vietnam War and concerns about nuclear devastation, many people criticized the sciences for their collaboration with governments and corporations engaged in making and using destructive weapons and products such as napalm and Agent Orange. This was not a criticism of science as such but rather of the uses to which it was put;

*Within the sciences and the field of the philosophy of science, there was a growing movement which questioned the objectivity of science and the claim that it was value free and neutral. Some authors, such as Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, suggested that science was more a matter of developing paradigms or models of the world that accounted for observations than of "reflecting" objective processes;

*In the field of literary and social theory, some people argued that the sciences were social constructions and that knowledge claims were often based on the interests of powerful groups who inflicted their power/knowledge on others. Later, post-modernists claimed that science was just one of many possible narratives for describing the world and had no special claim to validity;

*From a completely different direction, there was a rising fundamentalist backlash against the findings of the natural sciences on areas such as evolution, the origin and age of the universe, etc.

All of these tendencies have left their mark on the current state of the public view of science and contemporary confusion about its nature and role.

AT LEAST NOW WE KNOW about that UFO/Air Force dogfight over Braxton County in the 1950s.

THIS JUST IN. If you are looking for scientific data on how to deal with a drunk person you are shocking with electricity, click here. The take home message seems to be that people who are drunk are less belligerent when distracted.


A popular backlash against globalization and the leaders of the world’s largest companies is sweeping all rich countries, an FT/Harris poll shows.

Large majorities of people in the US and in Europe want higher taxation for the rich and even pay caps for corporate executives to counter what they believe are unjustified rewards and the negative effects of globalization...

The issue of rising inequality is now high on the political agenda of every country and will feature prominently in the 2008 US presidential election.


July 22, 2007


Caption: Seamus McGoogle is a keen student of the science of hummingbirds.

It's interesting that some of the current debates on the nature of science and knowledge have ancient roots.

Consider the following questions: does science give objective knowledge about the world that is certain, universal and necessary? Or are all it's results provisional and tentative?

Other ways of putting it might consist of asking whether "laws" of science are discovered or made up? Is it about what is true or what seems to work best to account for experience?

This one goes all the way back to Plato, and probably farther. Plato, inspired by his teacher Socrates, believed that universal knowledge of truth was possible beyond the realm of senses or opinion. His main enemies were the sophists, traveling teachers of reasoning and rhetoric, who tended to be relativistic and pragmatic.

One such was Protagoras, who said "Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not." Plato was not amused.

In his dialogue The Sophist, Plato, through the character of the Stranger, describes this controversy as a war between gods and giants:

There appears to be a sort of war of Giants and Gods going on amongst them; they are fighting with one another about the nature of essence...

Some of them are dragging down all things from heaven and from the unseen to earth, and they literally grasp in their hands rocks and oaks; of these they lay hold, and obstinately maintain, that the things only which can be touched or handled have being or essence, because they define being and body as one, and if any one else says that what is not a body exists they altogether despise him, and will hear of nothing but body...

And that is the reason why their opponents cautiously defend themselves from above, out of an unseen world, mightily contending that true essence consists of certain intelligible and incorporeal ideas; the bodies of the materialists, which by them are maintained to be the very truth, they break up into little bits by their arguments, and affirm them to be, not essence, but generation and motion. Between the two armies, Theaetetus, there is always an endless conflict raging concerning these matters.

Plato, of course, thought he was on the side of the gods. It looks like the earth giants have won a few lately though.

SPEAKING OF GIANTS, congratulations to Jean Edward Smith, professor of history at El Cabrero's alma mater, Marshall University. Smith has won kudos for his recent biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt--peace be unto him. The title is FDR and the publisher is Random House. It has gained many positive reviews around the country.

Dr. Smith was quoted in the Marshall Magazine as saying "Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt stand head and shoulders about the 40 other men who (have) occupied the White House. Washington founded the country, Lincoln preserved it and Roosevelt revived it." Amen.

In El Cabrero's childhood home, it was less risky to make irreverent religious jokes than to dis the Roosevelts. It is now safer for my (legally) adult kids to do the same in my presence.

SPEAKING OF MARSHALL, the same issue of the magazine has an interesting article about how public investments in research at Marshall is starting to (literally) pay dividends. This is yet another example if any is needed of the vital role that public investments in education, research and infrastructure can lead to a high road approach to economic development--in contrast to the low roaders who want to cut these investment, eliminate the minimum wage, and eliminate regulations that protect workers from injury and death on the job.

NATTERING NABOBS OF NEGATIVISM. On a similar note, here's an op-ed by yours truly from yesterday's Gazette about the good things that are happening in WV that can get and keep us on the high road.